In My Own Words: The misuse of the law of return by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The establishment of the state of Israel created a safe haven for Jews across the world. Now, if Jews were expelled from a country where they and their ancestors had lived for centuries, there was a home to welcome them. No longer were we subject to the whims of other nations for a place to settle. No longer did we have to worry about being treated like second class citizens or having equal rights under the law. Those fleeing unjust and irrational accusations of ritual murder and other anti-Jewish attacks could find a place of safety.

Not every Jew has been accepted, though. One example is the gangster Meyer Lansky, who moved to Israel and tried to receive citizenship under the law of return. The government refused to give him citizenship because of his criminal past. Lansky sued the Israeli government and lost. According to a New York Times article published in 1972, “The Supreme Court in Jerusalem... upheld a ruling by the Minister of the Interior, Yosef Burg, who had invoked a clause in the law empowering him to exclude, as liable to endanger public order, Jews with criminal pasts.” In this case, Lansky was not extradited to the United States, where he had been incited for various crimes, but he was not allowed to stay in Israel. 

Unfortunately, it seems that, in contemporary times, some accused of crimes are abusing the right of return to escape justice. A report by CBS News has found that Americans accused of abusing children have fled to Israel in order not to be tried for their crimes. The Jewish Community Watch, an American group that started tracking accused pedophiles in 2014, has identified more than 60 accused pedophiles living in Israel. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the JCW “told CBS that most of its cases originate from Modern Orthodox to haredi Orthodox communities in the U.S., but that it happens across the wider Jewish community as well.”

It does seem there is blame on both sides of the ocean for what is occurring. The Jewish community in the U.S. seems unwilling to push for extradition because a trial would highlight abuse in the community, and that’s bad publicity. That makes the U.S. government less interested in pursuing justice. It’s also been reported the Israeli police do not put a high priority on finding these men. 

The law of return was meant to prevent Jews from being persecuted because of their religion. It is not meant to help people escape justice. That’s not to say that all these men are guilty, but they should have to face trial. The Jewish community, like other religious communities, has tended in the past to protect the rabbi, teacher or upstanding member of the community, rather than the innocent on whom they prey – acting as if those making accusations are either liars or provoked the abuse. 

The government of Israel should also take a second look at some of those they are admitting. In the Lansky case, the refusal to offer him citizenship was done to protect the country. The same should be said of those accused of abusing children. While not all may be guilty, it’s difficult to believe that that large a number have been falsely accused. As anyone who has read about pedophile behavior knows, the abuse is rarely limited to just one incident or child. That means the communities hiding these men are placing their own children at risk.